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Originally published August 12, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified August 12, 2007 at 2:06 AM

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Meteor shower to peak tonight

Looking for some dirt-cheap entertainment tonight? Look up in the sky. The annual Perseids meteor shower is caused by flying dirt, tiny...

San Jose Mercury News

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Looking for some dirt-cheap entertainment tonight? Look up in the sky.

The annual Perseids meteor shower is caused by flying dirt, tiny meteors that will hit Earth's atmosphere at high speed and then leave streaks as they burn up.

Some folks call them meteor showers. Others call them shooting stars. But astronomy experts agree that this weekend's show should be extra special because there will be little or no moonlight to wash out the display.

The Perseids always peak in mid-August but are visible for several days. This year, the optimal viewing hours will be late tonight and early Monday, when there's a new moon or no moon.

The Perseids should also be visible Monday night, although the shooting stars won't be as abundant.

The minimeteors, most no larger than a human fingernail, are fragments of dirt left behind by an old comet, Swift-Tuttle, as it came close to the sun during numerous orbits.

No telescope is needed, just the naked eye, to see the sparkling procession known in some parts of Europe as the Tears of St. Lawrence.

Comets were formed at the beginning of the solar system, during the formation of the sun and Earth and other planets.

"This dirt has been frozen inside this chunk of cosmic ice for 5 billion years," said Andrew Fraknoi, chair of the astronomy program at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, Calif. And when it hits our atmosphere at speeds of 31 miles per second and burns up, "you're seeing one of the original particles of the solar system burning."

Astronomers estimate up to 60 meteors an hour could flit across the sky at the shower's peak.

This year's sky show comes with bonus: Mars will be visible as a bright red dot in the northeastern sky. "We have front-row seats this year," said Kelly Beatty, executive editor of Sky & Telescope magazine.

Material from The Associated Press and South Florida Sun-Sentinel is included in this report.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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